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Provided by Ron Fox
The foundation of the Salt Lake Temple in the foreground and the Tabernacle behind. This is an early C.R. Savage Stereo-view taken about 1868.

SALT LAKE CITY — Some aspects of general conference have not changed much in 150 years, such as vast crowds and endless lines.

On the morning of Oct. 7, 1867, general conference was set to begin in the newly constructed Salt Lake Tabernacle. Even then the pioneer edifice with a roof like a turtle shell had no empty seats, Elder Richard L. Evans of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a tribute to the Tabernacle one century later.

"An hour before the appointed time for conference commencing, the immense building was crowded in every part, great numbers being unable to obtain admission," Elder Evans said in 1967. "Altogether, the Tabernacle was full. ... No building could be constructed large enough to hold the Saints."

Long standby lines are still part of the general conference experience today, even after the twice-a-year conference moved across the street to the 21,000-capacity Conference Center in 2000.

Even so, the Salt Lake Tabernacle remains a useful and historically significant landmark on Temple Square. This October marks 150 years since the Tabernacle was completed and opened as a gathering place for the Latter-day Saints. The Tabernacle, which took two years to plan and four years to build, has hosted U.S. presidents, celebrities and famous musicians while serving as the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast. Elder Evans said the Tabernacle is one of the "wonders of the world."

"The Tabernacle was many years before its time, but it is still one of the wonders of the world, architecturally, artistically, acoustically, spiritually and an evidence of the faith and foresight of our fathers," Elder Evans said. "God bless them and their memories."

Architects and builders

According to Elder Evans' remarks in 1967, several experts have praised the architecture and acoustical properties of the Tabernacle.

On a visit to Salt Lake City, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright observed: "The Salt Lake Tabernacle is one of the architectural masterpieces of the country and perhaps the world."

Adelina Patti, a world-renowned artist of her time, remarked: "Never have I encountered such perfect resonance as here in the Tabernacle. Why, my voice is twice as large here. It carries further and with ever so much more tone than in any hall that I have ever sung in."

At general conference in April 1863, Daniel H. Wells, second counselor in the First Presidency, announced plans to build a tabernacle to accommodate as many as 10,000 Latter-day Saints, the Deseret News reported.

The new oval-shaped Tabernacle would have a self-supporting roof, arched lattice trusses to allow for an unobstructed view, and feature a stage, rostrum and pulpit with pipes and an organ, the article said.

Credit for the architecture goes to Truman O. Angell and William H. Folsom. Henry Grow was the master mechanic while Joseph Ridges built the organ. There were also hundreds of pioneers who did the heavy labor, according to a 1967 article in the Church News.

Original cost of the Tabernacle was about $300,000, not including the organ. The original Tabernacle organ, later enlarged several times, cost $900. Ridges found the parts in Boston and New York and assembled them in Utah, the Church News reported.

In the article, Brigham Young is quoted as saying, "We can't preach the gospel unless we have good music."

Although conference was held in the Tabernacle in 1867, work on the Tabernacle and organ continued until 1869. The formal dedication took place in October 1875.

Building the Tabernacle demonstrated the sacrifice and character of the pioneers, Elder Evans said.

"It is most remarkable to note that it was built by an isolated people in the days of their poverty, at a time when the membership of the church was fewer perhaps than 100,000; when there were only four stakes; and when Salt Lake City had a population of about 10,000," Elder Evans said.

"I want to say something of the principles of the people who built the building, the convictions that caused them to give up homes and all physical possessions for freedom, for the truth as they testified of it, and at times to lay down their lives — a people who sang in their homeless, hard-pressed sorrow: 'All is well! All is well! And should we die before our journey's through ... all is well.'"

Famous names

In addition to being the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and "Music and the Spoken Word," the Salt Lake Tabernacle has hosted several U.S. presidents, world leaders, entertainers, musicians and other famous names.

The long list includes Civil War hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, musician John Philip Sousa, Susan B. Anthony, Oscar Wilde, actor Edwin Booth, Joseph Smith's son Joseph Smith III, and Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, among many others.

Among those on the presidential list are Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Herbert C. Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.

President Theodore Roosevelt complimented the Latter-day Saints while visiting in May 1903, the Deseret News reported.

"You took a territory which at the outset was called after the desert, and you literally — not figuratively — you literally made the wilderness blossom as the rose," the president said from the pulpit. "The fundamental element in building up Utah has been the work of the citizens of Utah."

President John F. Kennedy spoke in the Tabernacle only two months before he was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963.

"Let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country," President Kennedy said. "As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back."

The last session

Since that conference in 1867, Brigham Young and each succeeding prophet, along with apostles and other male and female church leaders, have spoken from the Tabernacle pulpit (as many as 132 years worth with a few exceptions).

The last sessions of general conference in the Tabernacle took place in October 1999. By then, church members looked forward to experiencing the new Conference Center.

"There's nothing else like it on the planet," Tom Hanson, Conference Center project manager, said at the time.

President Gordon B. Hinckley offered this tribute in a talk he titled, "Good-bye to This Wonderful Old Tabernacle."

Comment on this story

"What a remarkable and wonderful structure this has been. But it has grown too small for our needs. At the time of its building it was a tremendous undertaking, built to accommodate all who wished to attend conference. ... We salute President Brigham Young on his boldness in undertaking the construction of this unique and remarkable building at a time when this was still frontier territory. The concept of the design was original. Its builders knew of nothing else quite like it," President Hinckley said.

"The Spirit of the Lord has been in this (Tabernacle). It is sacred unto us. We hope, we anticipate, we pray that the new (Conference Center) will likewise radiate the same spirit."